KELVIN KEMM | Government and industry need to exhibit true leadership and build proposed new reactors

Principals must have courage and wisdom to move along the path with some speed

Minister of electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa at the media briefing.
Minister of electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa at the media briefing.
Image: Freddy Mavunda/Business Day

The government has announced that the country is going ahead with the development of 2,500 MW of new nuclear power.

Great, it is about time. We should have already started the process some time ago.

Let us now hope that the process can unfold rapidly without delays and disruptions. Electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, in his important announcement, said that it will take about ten years to build the new nuclear complex. In this I hope that he is wrong.

The nuclear professionals of the country will tell you that we can get a large new nuclear power station running in six years, on condition that there is no external interference.

We must select the foreign partner companies rapidly and then get on with it. That means making sure that there is a proper South African engineering project management team in control, with an identifiable head of the project.

SA is extremely experienced in building large projects and very experienced in nuclear technology. Interestingly an amazing new nuclear power station has been built in the UAE, called Barakah. It has four reactors producing a steady 5,600 MW of electricity which is a bit larger than twice the size of Koeberg.

It took the Barakah team eight years from start until the first reactor was connected to the grid, producing electricity. Note that this is the first nuclear venture in the UAE, so they had to get all the required nuclear legislation on their books, set up regulatory and inspection systems and so on.

SA already has all that, so we have already walked that path. Another point of great interest is that there are 160 South Africans working on Barakah. For many of them, their contracts are now nearing the end and many want to come home. They would be thrilled to know that there are nuclear construction jobs waiting in SA.

Critics of nuclear keep saying that nuclear is expensive which is just not true. You have to look at it correctly. Right now, Koeberg produces SA’s cheapest electricity by far. This is because it was designed like that from the very beginning. Nuclear power stations are designed to last 60 years and will probably last 80 years or more. In contrast, wind and solar systems are designed to last 20 years. So, you have to build three such wind or solar systems in sequence to equal a nuclear plant’s lifetime, let alone the fact that you only get solar during part of the daytime and you only get wind when the wind blows, and it varies depending on how hard the wind is blowing.

If you buy a house, you don’t just say, ‘well it is expensive to live here,’ based on the purchase price alone. You take out a 20- or 30-year bond and then look at the monthly payments. That is what you’re supposed to do with a nuclear power station. You don’t just look at the whole capital cost over half a dozen years and then imagine that it is all paid one-shot, once.

To build a new large nuclear power station, bigger than Koeberg, will cost about R250bn. But bear in mind that the country has already spent about R250bn on the wind and solar that we have installed so far, and we don’t get reliable baseload power from that. We would have been far better off building a nuclear power station a decade ago. In fact, if we had an extra 2,500 MW of reliable nuclear power now, we would not have had any load shedding.

Interestingly, SA has also designed a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) called the HTMR-100. It is small and it produces a useful 35 MW of electricity. Of course, it is much cheaper to build smaller reactors like these, so they are easily available to a number of other African countries and even to private companies, or other specific users such as Richards Bay Harbour or Durban Harbour.

A most important and significant factor in the development of the HTMR-100 is that the reactor does not need to be near a large body of water like the sea. So you can build them anywhere you like. One could be built near a large gold mine, or in an industrial complex like Sasol.

In fact, you do not even have to connect them into a National Grid. They can be built in a stand-alone fashion. One can be built far out in a rural area in an African country, for example if there are mines there. Or you can build a cluster of four, all linked together. They can have their own grid which only needs to be a couple of kilometres in diameter.

Such systems can easily be privately owned, in the sense that they can be owned by a province or a municipality, or even a company such as a Sasol. This is all quite feasible. Already individual provinces in SA have been showing interest. The great thing about the HTMR-100 is that it is South African designed, so we can export them all over Africa. They are ideal for such deployment.

What we now need is for leaders in government and industry to exhibit true leadership and to go ahead and build the proposed new South African reactors. Leadership in government and industry is sadly lacking. You would be surprised at how many business and industrial ‘leaders’ tell me that they totally support what my team is doing, but they do not want to actually say so in public.

Nuclear power is incredibly safe, and it is ‘green’. The European Union, in 2022, decided that nuclear power is ‘green’, so it qualifies to be listed in their ‘green’ classification for green funding and so on.

We are now finding that there is a lot of interest from around the world in our reactor, and a few senior people have come to SA to visit us, to find out more about what we have achieved.

The decision to move forward with the 2,500 MW of new nuclear power is commendable. This figure represents 2,400 MW for a new large nuclear power station on the coast, and 100 MW for SMR development. It is a move to be applauded.

Since he came to office, Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, has projected a pro-nuclear position. Thankfully he saw the wisdom of that view, and has being one of the very few political leaders in the world with the courage and vision to pursue a nuclear path. Others in Europe and elsewhere are now starting to gain enough insight to follow along the same pathway. Furthermore, it is currently the case that about a dozen African countries have indicated their intention of following a nuclear future. That is precisely the correct thing to do.

SA now has a chance to be a substantive world leader and to project a real stable future, so that international investment flows into the country. To attract such international investment, it is necessary to clearly show that there will be a stable electricity supply well into the future…with no more disruptions. This latest nuclear move is undoubtedly a positive way to illustrate that point.

Let us hope that our leaders, in all branches of society, have the courage and wisdom to move along the path with some speed.

  • Dr Kemm is a nuclear physicist and a former chairpeson of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). He is currently chairman of Stratek Global, a nuclear project management company based in Pretoria

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